Stephen King is noted for saying that if a writer doesn’t read he doesn’t have the tools to write (paraphrase). It’s a bold statement, one that I find hard to swallow at times because I don’t have the time to read as much as I’d like these days. Luckily, I’ve always loved to read, a passion that started when I was very young. Growing up as a voracious reader, I liked to challenge myself by tackling the hardest books I could find. I remember feeling so proud when at the age of 12 I finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a week, and at 15 spent most of biology class immersed in The Fountainhead, and so on. Did I fully understand everything contained in those books? Heck, no. But that’s not the point. What is, is that from early on I was feeding my brain on quality writing.
Despite my love of the English language, I wasn’t an ace English student. In school, anything more complicated than understanding what adjectives and verbs were became like trying to understand Chinese. You’d mention the word ‘clause’ and my skin would crawl (which still happens to this day!) Asking me to explain the metaphors in a story gave me the shakes. Give me a story assignment, though, and I could out-write anyone in class. But there is a difference between writing a story and writing a story well, and I always wanted to be of the latter group. I believe that because I read so much and that the quality of what I read was good, though I might not have been able to explain the rules of grammar and syntax, somewhere deep—deep— in my brain, I managed to understand how to apply them. Was it by force of constantly seeing similar (word) patterns over and over, or perhaps I had a good memory? Don’t know, don’t care. It just worked and I’m thankful for it. And I’m still building on that foundation now, even though I read less than I ever did.
There was a time when I wasn’t writing at all. The drought lasted roughly 10 years. For someone who lived to write and who considered it an escape as well as therapy, it was a difficult time, to say the least. Mercifully, it ended and I started writing! Only what I produced wasn’t very good. I had to relearn what I had forgotten as well as find inspiration and motivation to keep working at getting better. How did I do that? I read. Classics. I wanted to reconnect with good writing structure, well-laid out, organized ideas, proper grammar and syntax, and all of it un-tampered by some of the gimmicks found in more modern reads. Essentially, I went back to the basics.
I know, I know. There are good modern and contemporary books out there I could have learned from, but I admit that with the advent of self-publishing (which is a route I, myself, have chosen) and the varied levels of editing out there, and after reading more than my share of disappointing books with worse editing, I felt going back to the classics published by established publishing houses was the safest way to go in order to achieve my learning goals. (I hope I haven’t offended anyone by this, but at the time, this is how I felt).
I learned and still learn a lot from reading quality books. I sometimes get into ruts where I reuse the same sentence structures over and over, or can’t for the life of me think of a new way to describe something mundane. When I need inspiration, reading introduces me to other ways of expressing ideas and other styles. Sometimes I’ll see something done that I had no idea you could do. Who knew that it was okay to switch POV (first person to third limited) in the same book? Say what? Yup, it’s been done. I’ve seen people break the established rule of ‘NO head-hopping’ (switching POV in the same scene)—I’m reading a book like that now, and it works. Often, I would stop mid-read to analyse how an author did this or that thing, or try to figure out how to adapt a new skill or technique to my skill box. Once, I read a book by a master writer and the things she did with words were incredible but defied conventional grammar and story structure as far as I could tell. Who knows? Maybe they weren’t ‘correct’, but to break the rules and still create a work that is flawless and easy to understand, one has to know what those rules are to begin with.
Last thought: I’m a terrible oral story-teller. The thought of making up something on the spot while making it interesting freaks me out. But the idea of crafting a written piece is another story. I like the word craft because it implies that when writing, I am not just throwing any old words on the page, but am actively thinking about each word and phrase and how they are put together. That I’m looking for the right flow and metre, adding beats or removing them when necessary. Or, playing with tone and mood to evoke emotion, or considering when to end the story or to let it roll. Everything in a story should have a purpose. I think I learned to do that from spending time analyzing books.
I’m probably coming off as a book snob, lol. Sorry about that. Please know that I have read and love all kinds of books. Trashy romances, pulp fiction, thrillers, suspense, action-adventure, comic books and more have been a part of my reading life since I was young. And I readily acknowledge that there are quality books in these and other genres just as there are literary fiction books and classics that aren’t so great. I focused on classics because that’s what worked for me. Each writer has to choose what works for them. There’s so much to learn. Luckily, there are so many books out there to help us out.
How do you feel about the connection between reading and it’s effect on writing? Do you read as much as you’d like, and if not, do you notice a drain on your skills or creativity?